Many brain cancer patients are, like former President Jimmy Carter, getting good news these days, thanks in part to new immune-boosting therapies that are extending the length and quality of their lives, a top doctor says.
“Some people may be surprised by how well Jimmy Carter is doing but, to be honest with you, I’m not terribly surprised,” neurosurgeon Dr. Lee M. Tessler tells Newsmax Health.
What does surprise Dr. Tessler, though, is how much Carter is doing in his private life, despite his ongoing treatment. At 91, the former president has not slowed his schedule, and even traveled to Memphis earlier this month — tool kit in hand — to join with Habitat for Humanity in constructing a house.
“Given Carter’s age, this is not a group that traditionally does well, no matter what you do. So, while I don’t find what he’s doing is unbelievable, it’s definitely impressive,” says Dr. Tessler, executive director of the Long Island Brain Tumor Center in Lake Success, N.Y.
This week, Carter’s doctors said his cancer, which was diagnosed in August, had stopped spreading. He is undergoing treatment for the advanced melanoma, which is a deadly form of skin cancer that had spread to his liver and was found in four spots in his brain.
The former president is being treated at Emory University’s Winship Cancer Center in Atlanta with and advanced form of radiation and a new immunologic drug called Kevtruda (pembrolizumab).
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration expedited the approval of Kevtruda last year after studies showed it extended the lives of patients with advanced melanoma. It is also approved for advanced lung cancer.
Immunologic drugs differ from traditional treatment in that they are a “targeted” therapy that bolsters the immune system to fight the cancer, as opposed to the conventional drug treatment for cancer, which is chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy kills cells that are subdividing, including non-cancerous ones as well. This is why chemotherapy patients suffer often debilitating side effects, including nausea, hair loss, and frequent infections.
On the other hand, immunotherapy drugs affect only the cancer cells, and this lessens the side effects. That makes patients like Carter, more likely to be able to continue their usual activities, Dr. Tessler notes.
In addition to being treated with the newest type of immunotherapy, the former president is also undergoing the latest form of radiation — stereotactic radiosurgery, which goes by different names, including “Gamma Knife” treatment.
“Gamma Knife is great for melanoma. Traditional radiation doesn’t work, but Gamma Knife does,” says Dr. Tessler.
Like conventional chemotherapy, traditional radiation does not distinguish between tumor cells and healthy cells — it kills both. But stereotactic radiosurgery focuses the beams better on the tumor, so it can kill the cancer cells more effectively while sparing the healthy ones.
“In the past, someone of Jimmy Carter’s age probably wouldn’t have been offered standard treatment because the risks would have outweighed the benefits. But now with stereotactic radiosurgery and immunologic drugs it is now becomes possible,” says Dr. Tessler.
“I think this is the new horizon for cancer treatment, absolutely. There is no question about it,” he adds.
Still, given Jimmy Carter’s age, and the seriousness of his disease, it remains likely that the former president ultimately will succumb to cancer.
But, says Dr. Tessler, “he’s going to live a lot longer than we would have expected in the past.”
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